Review: Creative Xmod

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The propaganda

The Xmod is Creative’s first external sound card to implement X-Fi technology. X-Fi has been securing Creative’s leading position in the sound card market for a long time thanks to its excellent sound quality enhancing functions. The Xmod offers a similar feature set to full blown X-Fi cards, incorporating CMSS 3D and Crystalizer technologies to enhance the quality of your sound output in ways an internal sound card can only dream of.

The Xmod is a compact device that consists of one large multipurpose volume dial and a couple of 3.5mm outputs (for headphones and speakers), along with a 3.5mm input, which allows you to use the device as standalone sound enhancer. Xmod is also completely plug-and-play capable, which takes away all the hassle of installing software and fiddling around with settings.

The good

The Crystalizer feature works by upconverting music to 24-bit and by intelligently filling in the missing parts in the higher and lower frequencies. This has been made possible by Creative’s technical wizards reverse engineering the MP3 encoding process, so that the system has an eerie ability to fill in the blanks and give noticeably clearer, sharper sound.

Creative claims the technology “makes your MP3s sound better than CDs”. It’s a very bold statement and hard to verify precisely using ordinary external PC speakers, but one thing is clear: that the Xmod does add a significant improvement to the quality of digital music and the audio tracks of digital video files. The sound offers a noticeably increased range and an underlying power that is definitely a pleasure to hear.

Meanwhile, the CMSS 3D is doing its own thing by adding a simulated surround sound effect to the audio output. Its strength is that you’ll barely notice its presence after you’ve listened to it for a few minutes as it adds a level of comfort and realism to your listening experience that is hard to find on any rival sound card technologies.

Clearly the sound quality lives up to expectations, but I was also pleasantly surprised by the excellent design of the hardware. The unit is nicely compact and aesthetically appealing and even comes with a handy carry case. Furthermore, the amount of Crystalizer and CMSS 3D enhancement can be set manually with the main dial by using a functions selector button cleverly hidden underneath the top section of the control unit.

The bad

If you want to use the Xmod without a PC (or Mac) to enhance the sound of an ordinary MP3 player, you can do so; the only problem is that you’ll need to use a USB DC adaptor to provide power to the device, which Creative has neglected to include in the pack. It’s only a minor oversight because in most circumstances, the Xmod will be drawing its power from the USB slot anyway, but it would have been useful to have.

One thing that is included in the pack is a set of basic headphones. Unfortunately they don’t really offer decent enough sound quality to realise the full potential as the Xmod, so it will probably be worth getting a proper set for when you’re not using external speakers. But in the end, this doesn’t really detract from the Xmod’s performance as a sound card.

Geek Sheet

Plug-and-play functionality

Crystalizer audio enhancer

CMSS 3D virtual surround sound

Standalone sound enhancement (when used with USB DC adaptor)

Compatible with Windows XP, Vista and Mac OS X

Overview

The Xmod now retails for around £50, which makes it fairly expensive compared to other external sound card products. However, there are very few directly competing alternatives, and in terms of sound quality, design and ease of use the Xmod is a clear winner. Particularly if you use a laptop rather than a desktop machine for all of your digital music and videos and find yourself depending on the onboard soundcard, it is worth checking out the Xmod as it will make a really significant difference. I’m thinking of Mac users especially (and the review unit was tested using a MacBook) as the smooth, white design and plug-and-play functionality clearly suits the Apple design ethic.

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